Gallery Group Exhibition
Edward Thorp Gallery
The Hudson Review
A Nourishing Summer Meal
Autumn 2004, Vol. LVII, No. 3
by Karen Wilkin
SUMMER IS THE SEASON OF GROUP SHOWS. Some galleries mount thematic exhibitions combining artists they represent with ones they don't. Others use the occasion to test the staying power of newcomers being considered for representation. Still others take the line of least resistance, profiting from the art world's traditional August doldrums to relax a little by showcasing their stable. "We're doing a summer installation of recent work by Mr. Group," an art dealer friend used to say and yawn ostentatiously, "so I can get to the beach." But even the most expedient shows can offer unexpected surprises and even the most unpromising assembly usually has a few things that reward attention.
There are also summer exhibitions that are neither expedient nor unpromising, such as "Ground-Field-Surface," at Robert Miller, a mix of highly respected abstract
artists, living and departed, from within and without the gallery, among them Al Held, Lee Krasner, Yayoi Kusama, Joseph Marioni, Pat Passlof, Milton Resnick, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, and
Pierre Soulages. The selection included both signature and eccentric works from various periods, loosely united by an emphasis on all-overness and/or rich, tactile surfaces. Among the standouts:
an early, brushy Held, less dispassionate than his familiar exercises in geometry; a truculent, relentlessly frontal Serra drawing; a juicy, brooding Soulages. I was glad to see a vintage
Passlof, a distillation of landscape into rhythmic gestures, more pastoral and lyrical than her urgently brushed recent works, but with a similar undercurrent of passion. I was glad to see, too,
Marioni's rich, darkly glowing monochrome, a cascade of apparently dense, viscid paint whose illusory robustness declared itself in spite of literal thinness and delicacy. Almost four decades and
wholly different conceptions of what a painting can be separate the Passlof and the Marioni, but they were both memorable. (Note to the organizers: it would have been professional and courteous
to have spelled Passlof's name correctly; given her long presence on the New York art scene, there really is no excuse.)
A few blocks further downtown, at Elizabeth Harris, the theme "Night New York" provided an excuse to bring together a witty, diverse group of paintings, photographs, and works on paper, all improvisations-obviously-on nocturnal urban motifs. At one end of the spectrum, Yvonne Jacquette's crisp view of the Paramount building tower, jammed against the girders of new Times Square construction, celebrated the irrational, Cubist relationships of New York buildings seen from high vantage points, translated into her characteristic flickers of golden light against luminous darks. At the other extreme, Alex Katz's deadpan 1981 profile of two men against a nighttime window relegated the complex imagery of the nighttime city to mere backdrop. Richard Bosnian flattened the pre-9/11 skyline of Manhattan and its reflection in the Hudson into a confrontational, jagged silhouette rationalized by scribbles of light. The diametrical opposite of Bosnian's picturespatially, coloristically, and in terms of execution-was Ron Milewicz's cool, close-valued Blackout, which made viewers feel they were hovering above an outer borough industrial wasteland in an eerie twilight. And more. Plainly, the curators had fun assembling this potpourri; viewers reaped the benefit.
Elsewhere in Chelsea, at Edward Thorp, the high points of an ecumenical selection included Matt Blackwell's loopy, enchanting expositions on his world of bears, goats, palm trees, and bear-men who play the fiddle. Space expands and contracts, as needed, under the pressure of his lush brushwork and rapid drawing. The combination of sensuous, sophisticated mark-making and wonky imagery was, as always in Blackwell's work, irresistible. Rebecca Smith's unraveling grids, clean-edged painted metal structures that seemed to hover against the wall, played with references to both construction and ruin, with a nod at the conventions of perspective, wrenched and dislocated. The clarity of the metal grids was satisfying, but I missed the improvisational quality of Smith's work in materials demanding less preconception-her earlier wall drawings, for example, or her soft, wall-mounted, mixed-media constructions. But since Smith has been notably willing to explore whatever physical means were most suited to her concerns of the moment, from colored tape to strung beads to a kind of demented crochet, her new grid constructions made me eager to learn where she is heading next. I've followed Blackwell's and Smith's work for some time, so it was their presence in the show that brought me to the gallery. By contrast, Natasha Sweeten's work was a discovery of the visit. The offkilter geometry and cartoon-y imagery of her generously scaled abstractions on wood announced her admiration for Thomas Nozkowski's inventive, intelligent paintings, but she gave the idiom a personal twist, largely because of her nice sense of the physicality of painting.
Uptown, Kouros Gallery presented "Watercurrents: Twelve Artists Working in Watercolor," an affirmation of the enduring values of modernism, both abstract and perceptual. The subtext was, at least among some of the participants, wildly various takes on the legacy of Cézanne. Wilbur Niewald's solidly carved, facetted green pines and Ruth Miller's straightforward pair of melons, in a strange, melancholy palette of ochres and mauves, both rendered fairly direct, but deeply personal, homages. Raoul Middleman dissolved planes into washes of color without losing a sense of underlying structure, although his paint handling veered perilously close to "good watercolor technique." Lois Dodd's combination of keenly observed contours, in close-up plant images, invoked Matisse's example, at first viewing, but her planes of shattered color returned us to the world of Cezanne's carefully assembled tonalities, as though her goal was to reconstruct the multiple touches of the Aix master as broad, essential planes. Andrew Forge's paradoxically disembodied but firm dissections of perception into unnameably shaped touches of indescribable colors were the most individual and the most Cézanne-ian of the works on view, at once intensely evocative of complex things and spaces, and wholly about nothing but the act of placing color on a surface. The sculptor Garth Evans' small, monumental images, with their sharply bounded pools of color, like demonstrations of the chromatic possibilities of overlapping hues, made brilliant by surrounding darkness, were as abstract as Forge's and like them, too, hinted at stringently analyzed perceptual underpinnings, now completely subsumed by the fact of painting. I'm sorry to report that the rest of the twelve were less noteworthy.
Further uptown, at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, the summer group was replaced by three simultaneous one-person exhibitions by gallery artists: paintings by Kikuo Saito and John Griefen, and sculpture by Willard Boepple. Over the past few years, Saito has continued to explore two types of pictures, both seemingly meditations on his experience as a transplanted Japanese artist dealing with a new language and a new alphabet. One series is based on rather severe rows of elegant Roman letters, fraying into illegibility against delicately painted grounds, the other, on sweeps of unreadable calligraphy and enigmatic pictograms, floating in subtly modulated expanses. Saito's most recent works fuse the two motifs. In them, sketchy letters drown in loose slashes of paint and indecipherable glyphs, sometimes disappearing entirely under the accumulation of aggressive strokes and blots, so that the inherent elegance of the pictures is subverted by the tension between fragile, controlled drawing and flung patches of paint. As well, an invigorating roughness of handling, along with a palette heated by slightly "off," full-blown colors, contributed to a new intensity of mood, making the best of these pictures take their places among Saito's strongest.
Griefen, who has been for years a dedicated explorer of the expressive possibilities of overscaled gestures and dramatic surface inflections, showed new monochrome canvases that were striking for their reticence, sobriety, and clarity. They seemed like dissections of his past work, as if he were subjecting the baroque expanses of his earlier paintings, layer by layer, to a process of aesthetic self-analysis. In the best of Griefen's recent pictures, the sheet of color, whether bright, dark, or pale, bore witness to the history of its making. Traces of oversized brushmarks emphasized the thinness and transparency of the surface but also made it seem that we were seeing into shallow depths. Proportion, of course, is crucial when so much else has been reduced to a minimum, and a few paintings might have benefited from some fine-tuning of dimensions; the narrower verticals, for some reason, were more convincing than the squarer formats. All in all, however, it was good to see this smart, thoughtful painter heading in a new direction.
Willard Boepple, who, for the past two decades, has meditated on the experience of being a sentient human being by making metaphorical equivalents for what he calls "things the body uses," has expanded his inquiries to what might be called "places the body inhabits"-architecture. At Salander-O'Reilly, he showed a large, gleaming aluminum "drawing" of a schematic enclosure that could be entered but was, more importantly, despite its referential door opening and gables, an abstract discussion of how a chunk of space can be made as significant as a solid form. Three small, pedestal-mounted sculptures titled Temples were the inverse of the large aluminum piece: opaque, chunky, built of thick plates of wood stained with dark, matte pigment. Occasional slots allowed us to see through the blocky forms, like passageways through massive structures, not only reinforcing the architectural analogy, but also suggesting that these dense cubes could be collapsed and closed, like trick boxes. Mysteriously, the Temples threatened to unmake themselves, as we watched, or perhaps they were what would happen to one of the framework "rooms" if it fell into a black hole. Boepple's work has rewarded our attention for years, but these highly charged, ambiguous objects seem to have taken him into new, even more challenging regions.
For sheer modishness, it was hard to rival "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," at The Project. The title, according to a gallery handout, has nothing to do with Yeats, but "references Joan Didion's eponymous landmark essay." The show "examines failed Utopian propositions" and aims at exploring "contemporary notions of de-atomization through the lens of anarchist architectural lexicons and cultural bohemianism." Uhhuh. Most works on view were, as one might expect from the prose, essentially non-visual, often technologically elaborate illustrations of not very compelling or original ideas that remained largely incomprehensible until explicated by texts or soundtracks. (Once explicated, they simply became pretentious.) We were told, for example, that Rachel Harrison's inert lump, balanced on a pile of multicolored drinking straws, "can be read as a kind of utopie memorial to the principles of hippie counter culture." It also read as a memorial, "utopie" or otherwise, to the art projects of the progressive (read "permissive") schools of my childhood. The exception to this sort of thing was Karlis Rekevics' matte white construction, Submersive, a generously scaled, seemingly loose-limbed riff on the unglamorous side of the urban landscape. Rekevics takes as his point of departure such familiar, but often ignored, parts of our daily surroundings as scaffolding, barriers, hoardings, and the like, translating them-not literally-into cool, opaque, sometimes fragmented cast plaster forms. Since he builds all of his components himself, he confounds our expectations by subtly varying dimensions and surfaces, so that the transformation is intensified. Rekevics' sculptures function not simply as ghost images of forgotten parts of the city, but as independent, self-sufficient but evocative objects that teeter on the edge of becoming places.
An even more ambitious installation by Rekevics was seen a little earlier in Brooklyn, in an exhibition celebrating the end of one of Triangle Arts Association's international residency cycles. (Full disclosure: I am one of the people who helps run the project.) A group of vast structures including a curving ramp and a slender "cage" on rollers, all made of plaster and punctuated with electric bulbs, played with and subverted our memories of such urban phenomena as highways, billboards, construction sites, abandoned buildings, and more, without looking literally like any of them. Rekevics' complex construction entered into an illuminating dialogue with the gritty views of Dumbo warehouses and the Brooklyn Bridge out his studio windows. Enormous drawings of the tattered edges of the city enriched the conversation.
Rekevics' fellow residents at the Triangle studios, the Canadian painter, Jordan Broadworth, and the British sculptor, Helen Brough, showed sensuous, tonal canvases and a freewheeling polychrome installation, respectively. Broadworth's smoky pictures often seem to be the product of unpainting as much as painting-that is to say, their luminous transparencies appear to have been wiped out, making them seem potentially mutable, as if an obscuring flood of color could drift back in. The contradiction between the evident (but sometimes fictive) materiality of Broadworth's paint and the ephemeral, diaphanous quality of his "imagery" is arresting. So is the pervasive autumnal, slightly melancholy mood of his pictures, like nostalgia for something not quite nameable. Brough's major piece was an airborne, loose-jointed construction of colored Plexiglas planes, both opaque and translucent. There was a faint echo of Matisse's floral gouaches découpées, whirled into three dimensions, but Brough's vocabulary of shapes, some as attenuated as bird wings, is entirely her own. If this suggests an artful, suspended arrangement, think again. Rather than simply hanging her shapes, Brough keeps them in tension, torques them and makes them defy gravity. The edges of the Plexi catch the light in unexpected ways, creating a kind of luminous drawing that plays against the solid, twisting planes and their shadows. From some views, the result was a disembodied mass of floating chroma, from others, a crisp, firm arrangement of broad and fine "strokes" of color. Brough's small cast resin pieces were like stilled, portable versions of her large installation, with the floating color turned into tremulous bands trapped in a translucent sea.
My dealer friend's yawns notwithstanding, shows of "recent work by Mr. Group" can be extremely rewarding, not just as light summer fare, but as appetite-whetting appetizers for the fall season. I hope he enjoyed the beach with a clear conscience. I will be watching eagerly for the next showing of many of these artists.